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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Exploring the artwork lining the walls of the Oval Office

Of all the Presidential perks you could imagine – the potential to pardon yourself and park virtually anywhere – surely the most underrated would be the carte blanche to redecorate the Oval Office. As the central hub where unfathomably big political decisions are made, you’d want to spruce the place up a bit, stick a few nice paintings on walls and create a homelier vibe when mulling over policy. With every administration comes new art, painstakingly selected to reflect the aims and ambitions of the new president.

The little glimpses we have of the artwork displayed in the Oval Office are hugely significant. Press pictures there are inevitable, so anything on the walls acts like a subtle clue as to the cultural leanings of the president. Art advisors are called in, and deliberations likely had about the symbolism of the paintings selected. Echoes of policy can be felt in their selections – President Lyndon B. Johnson banned sex-based discrimination in the federal workforce in 1967 – and was also the first President to display a painting by a female artist, with Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s Franklin D. Roosevelt.

While Dwight D. Eisenhower was managing Cold War tensions and the looming destruction of nuclear war, he gazed at a portrait of Robert E. Lee and landscapes, an almost poetic balance of military force and the very thing war threatened to destroy. It’s an interesting thing to analyse because while these paintings are obviously hand-selected, they quite counterintuitively reveal the inner workings of a president. An extension of their taste is about as close as you could get – their security and power are impenetrable, but a portrait is a small window into their world.

Unsurprisingly, portraits dominate. The most powerful men in the world have often sat looking at the powerful men before them. Roosevelt is a recurring force through various presidents, as is George Washington, whose portrait President Nixon experimented with in three separate paintings before settling on which would sit on the mantel.

In recent years, paintings have been used as political barbs. In a very awkward picture of the then-president-elect, Donald Trump, meeting with Barack Obama in 2016, a Norman Rockwell hangs loftily above Trump’s head. The 1946 work, Working on the Statue of Liberty, featured a group of men doing maintenance work on the statue.

As Rockwell’s granddaughter Abigail explained to Huffington Post, the painting notably included an African-American man who was working on the symbolic realisation of American freedom and unity. “Most of my grandfather Norman Rockwell’s paintings are about tolerance, unity, and the inherent goodness and resilience of the human spirit,” she said.

Adding: “The reflection of that vision and the profound presence of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the bust below, by African-American sculptor Charles Alston, speak volumes without saying a word.”

Reflecting on the intentional placement of the artworks, she said: “Perhaps they are able to say what Obama could not in these circumstances of necessary protocol.”

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